I had heard before that winch-launching gliders was a relatively rare practice in the USA, while quite common in the rest of the world.

My data is mostly anecdotal, but I do know gliding clubs in Europe that exclusively use winches.

A recent post in The Hangar reminded me of this: Tanner claims their club owns the first winch launcher sold by Tost to a USA customer, and that they have not used it in years.

As far as I know general aviation scene in the Asia-Pacific region takes after that in the US, but I have no concrete knowledge.

Is winch launching relatively rarer in the USA than in the rest of the world? If so, why? How does it compare to other regions?

  • $\begingroup$ I'm curious about your source for "rest of the world". $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ It is in the next sentence, anecdotal data mostly, hence the question itself. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ @AEhere Europe != "the rest of the world." The world consists of more than just Europe and the USA. :) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 25 '19 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab did I somehow conflate them? I said I had heard they were less common in the USA and had anecdotal data for the EU. Where did you read the EU == rest of the world equivalence? $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ @AEhere Your question is about USA vs. "the rest of the world," but your anecdotal data is only for the USA and Europe. It seems like the question is more like, "Why are winch launches less common in the USA than in the EU?" to which the answer is mostly, "Because most (if not all) EU countries have very high fuel taxes, leading to pump prices almost 4x what they are in the USA." $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Jul 25 '19 at 23:04

To expand on Quiet Flyer's answer, it's technical and economic at the same time.

Technical: Winch is limiting because you are deposited in the same spot over the field, whereas a tow, if the pilot knows what he's doing, can take you to a thermal up to a few miles from the field. Plus you can get towed higher. If you had to choose the launch method that gives the highest probability for a successful flight, aerotow's a no-brainer.

Economic: Because of the higher average individual purchasing power in the US (and Canada to more or less the same degree) of disposable income (for example, power flying is a middle class, even lower middle class, activity in the US and Canada, and an upper middle class activity in EU), glider pilots can afford the higher cost of a tow, but which is still cheaper than a tow in Europe because overall operating costs for power planes are less.

So given the choice between paying 15-20 bucks for a winch launch to hopefully 2000 ft (if you have a runway long enough to fit the cable) and 30-40 bucks to be hauled to 3000 feet in a Pawnee, whose pilot, if reasonably skilled, will find and drop you off right at a thermal, most North American glider pilots will pay the 30-40 for the tow.

So the result is there is very little market demand for winch operations in North America, except with some small clubs in out of the way places without the money and resources to run a tow plane.

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    $\begingroup$ The one thing I'd say is that winch launches in the EU can be very, very cheap in comparison. One club I've glided from repeatedly has an electric winch that you can easily pull 1000 ft from, often into a thermal. If not, you practice a circuit and try again. The price in USD is about $6-8. $\endgroup$
    – Landak
    Jul 24 '19 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting. I'd probably go for that just for the thrill of the low cost kite ride. What is the typical charge for a launch to say 1.5 to 2k with a gas powered winch? I was just guessing at 15-20$. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jul 25 '19 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Landak to supplement John's question, I'd also be interested if you could provide data on the cost of a tow in the EU. $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnK -- it's really the length of the runway that gets limiting for height, not particularly the motor on the other end. Again, most clubs I've been to have a fixed fee per launch, typically with member vs non-member discounts, but not depending on how hard you pull. A ballpark figure for a 2000 ft aerotow is ~$40 USD (most places have a set price per thousand feet). I personally prefer winch launches - on tow there is a period where you are low and slow, and, depending on geography, might not have a good option to land ahead if required - this doesn't really happen on a winch. $\endgroup$
    – Landak
    Jul 25 '19 at 7:52
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    $\begingroup$ Wow, $15 for a winch launch? No wonder it's unpopular (I guess it's expensive because it's unpopular). Here in Europe (NL, CZ), it's around €4 for a winch launch, compared to a tow for ~ €15-20 (or often €30+ if you're not a member). I'd expect towing to be quite expensive in the US because you have to pay an appropriately certificated pilot to spend all day doing relatively boring work, and even in Czechia where labor is really cheap a tow is around €4 per minute (and you need at least 4 minutes to get anywhere). $\endgroup$
    – TooTea
    Jul 25 '19 at 8:09

Is winch launching relatively rarer in the USA than in the rest of the world?


If so, why?

At least in part because airplane fuel, as well as some other costs associated with powered aviation, are cheaper in the US than in many other countries.

  • $\begingroup$ Future edit-- harmonize grammar $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 5:27
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    $\begingroup$ Source about "rest of the world"? In Argentina, where I flew the most, winch tows are extremely rare (say, 1% of the clubs or something like that, and I don't think there's a single winch-only operation). $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @MartinArgerami -- still, if you averaged the rate of aerotow to winch tow launches in US versus the whole global average, it would be higher in the US. Interesting to point out other exceptions though. How about, say, South Africa? $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ Just noticed my answer could be interpreted along the lines of "glider flying is rare in the US because it's not too expensive to fly power planes, so people do that instead". That was not my intention! Any enlightened person would prefer to go soaring rather than drilling holes in the sky with an airplane, whenever weather conditions and circumstances permit. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 '19 at 1:52
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, unless that enlightened person wanted to fly to a powered-aircraft only airport for lunch with a couple of passengers, or for an afternoon golf outing. Or for any other reason that has to with flying to actually get somewhere vs just flying around to see what the birds are doing. I'm that's an old argument tho. $\endgroup$
    – CrossRoads
    Aug 5 '19 at 22:56

This is strongly influenced by the overwhelming number of airports in the United States compared to other countries.

According to chartsbin, which pulled it's data from the CIA world factbook, in 2010 there were 43,982 airports in the world, of which 34 percent (15079) are in the United States.

The US also tops the world in unpaved airfields with 9,885. The next highest country on that list was Brazil with 3346 and only Mexico in the group topping 1000.

Couple all of this with the US accounting for less than 5 percent of the world population and one thing becomes clear...there are just a lot more places to aerotow from in the US than the rest of the world.

I would guess (will try to backup with stats later) that the US also accounts for a much bigger proportion of GA (and thus tow capable) airplanes as well.

As an aside, so far all of my 150+ glider flights have been aerotow. I look forward at some point to try winch launching...I've heard it is quite a rush!

  • $\begingroup$ "I've heard it is quite a rush!" Especially if you break a tow link at low altitude... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Jul 25 '19 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ There are 416k GA airplanes in the world, and 220k of them (52.9%) are registered in the US. Data for pilots is harder to come by, but it is likely similar. $\endgroup$
    – StephenS
    Jul 25 '19 at 18:43
  • $\begingroup$ @StephenS thanks...do you mind if I add that to my answer? $\endgroup$ Jul 25 '19 at 19:00
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    $\begingroup$ We (Sutton Bank, UK) only winch launch on our short rwy 24 when there's sufficient wind for ridge lift to work on the cliff at the end of said rwy 24. Typical launch height is 400'-500', and the winch is made out of old combine harvester parts with an enormous Cummins 6 pot diesel engine. All but the very lowest of cable breaks result in a normal flight, because landing ahead generally isn't possible. So if it's quite a rush you're looking for... $\endgroup$ Jul 26 '19 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ @TobyWilson " made out of old combine harvester parts with an enormous Cummins 6 pot diesel engine" Huh, I always thought the Mad Max universe was set in Australia, not elsewhere in the Commonwealth. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 '19 at 13:00

Watching YouTube videos like this one, I get the impression that car towing is quite popular in the USA - especially for instruction flights.

The reason why car towing is done instead of winch launching is simple:

Car towing is quite simple: You require a powerful SUV that you can buy at the next car dealer.

Winch launching requires a winch. I have read that a winch costs more than 300 thousand EUR (350 thousand USD). Because of this high price most clubs here in Germany try to build their winches themselves and sometimes fail due to the lack of engineering skills. (Years ago I myself was a member of a club who failed.)

So if you have the choice between winch launch and car towing, you will probably decide to do car towing.

However, here in Germany car towing is nearly never done because of the airfield sizes:

Using a winch a runway length of 950m is sufficient to lift a glider to 1100ft GND. I have read that a runway length of 1700m is enough for 2000ft GND. The runway length of 2000m in the YouTube video was only sufficient for 700ft GND using car towing.

This means that car towing requires much longer runways than winch launching.

A typical airfield here in Germany has a runway length of 600m, however, winch launching is only done on airfields with runway lengths of 800m and longer.

Europe is rather densely populated so there is simply no space left to build (general aviation) airfields with longer runways.

  • $\begingroup$ Good points- on the whole I'd say car towing is much less common then aerotow in the US, but I have participated in it, and I've never even seen a winch, at least in the sailplane context. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 '19 at 10:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for bringing up the competing alternative of car towing, I did not consider it. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 '19 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ The FAA's Glider Flying Handbook says that "Automobile launches today are very rare," which led me to believe they're probably the least popular method of launching nowadays. (Glider Flying Handbook 2013, FAA-H-8083-13A, page 7-14.) I've never heard of a car launch happening anywhere near where my club operates (69G Richmond Field in southeastern Michigan). For what it's worth, our runway is about 2400 feet (800 m). $\endgroup$ Aug 5 '19 at 19:04

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